Something Reflective – Seder as Resilience
I gave a talk last week on Haggadah illustrations during World War ll. We looked at editions from the concentration camp in Gurs (1941), from the Jewish Brigade fighting in the British Army in North Africa (1942), from the Jewish community of Morocco (1943, defiantly called ‘Haggadat Hitler’), from Kibbutz Naan (1942) and from the Displaced Person’s camp near Munich (1948). ‘What resilience!’ someone observed, and I saw the whole group nod in agreement.
Jewish history is filled with examples of resilience. One doesn’t have to think far back: my great-grandmother spent the years of Nazi occupation doing her utmost to keep in touch with her dispersed family; it’s all she cared about. Her last recorded words were, ‘Nothing will destroy my faith.’ Innumerable people showed the same spirit. That’s how Judaism, and how the best human values, have survived all the persecutions and degradations of history.
Halfway through the Haggadah we raise up our cup of wine and say ‘Vehi She’amdah – That which stood firm for our ancestors and us…’ It’s not clear what this ‘that’ refers to, which leaves plentiful scope for interpretation. For example: ‘That’ is dedication to Jewish learning; ‘That’ is never feeling secure on earth, so that our homeland is always our faith; ‘That’ is the Jewish women who’ve maintained the strength of family and community; ‘That’ is commitment to each other; ‘That’ is dedication to universal justice and compassion; ‘That’ is Hatikvah, hope itself.
We’ve had much need of resilience over the past year. Let’s draw from Seder night and the Haggadah on our long journey to redemption, renewed courage, hope, determination and faith.
Something Halakhic – The Obligation to Ask Questions
The Mishnah insists that the Seder include questions. This is based on the Torah’s repeated instruction: when your children ask you – vehiggadeta, you shall tell them. (Hence the name of the Seder text, Haggadah.)
The Talmud explains that if there are no children present, one’s partner asks the questions; if one’s alone, one asks them to oneself and even if everyone present is a scholar, they must interrogate each other. The questions shouldn’t just be formulaic; they should be genuine.
This tenacious curiosity, this urge to learn, to understand more deeply, balanced against the awareness that all our knowledge is invariably tentative and that we must always explore further, – is a key part of resilience.
Rabbi Cardozo recalled how a non-Jewish friend asked to be taken to visit a yeshivah. When they left, the gentleman expressed horror at the arguing, raised voices and seeming chaos within: was this some kind of rebellion against the British Government? he asked. No, Rabbi Cardozo replied, they’re discussing the meaning of God and life. The man was shocked: I thought you’d have solved that long ago, he exclaimed. That, responded Rabbi Cardozo, referring to the questioning and debating, is why we’ve survived all our enemies!
Seder night is both then and now. It’s about history, and about the present. It’s what the ancient, never-ending journey towards freedom means to us today.
So maybe find, and also invite everyone who’ll be at the (inevitably small) Seder to find, a poem, picture or object which expresses for them some aspect of what that road from slavery to equality and injustice to justice means to them. At the Seder, ask them to explain how they see the connection.